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ICT - On-side and one of the team

The Government wants parents to have access to data on their child's schooling, but online portals can encourage them to get engaged in the learning process in a more positive way. Gerald Haigh reports

The Government wants parents to have access to data on their child's schooling, but online portals can encourage them to get engaged in the learning process in a more positive way. Gerald Haigh reports

This term, secondary schools are expected to have begun giving parents online access to data on their children's attendance, behaviour and grades. Many primaries, too, are well on their way to meeting their 2012 deadline.

The usual online reporting tool is a portal or gateway giving a password-protected log-in to the school's management information system - Capita's Sims Learning Gateway or Serco's Facility ePortal, for example. Sometimes an add-on product, such as Tasc Software's Insight, is used to make data more accessible and user-friendly for parents.

This is a step forward from the system of infrequent paper reports. But is it enough? Probably not, is the message from a growing number of school leaders and parents. Many believe that if parental engagement is to be effective in driving school improvement, it has to go further.

"The government targets for getting data out to parents actually miss the point," says Dominic Tester, assistant head in charge of e-learning at Costello Technology College in Basingstoke, Hampshire. "It is about parents becoming engaged in the process of learning."

Mr Tester is one of many who believe that just setting up that basic information channel seriously under-uses the power of the available technology. In many schools a huge amount of work is already being done in a collaborative virtual space - usually a virtual learning environment (VLE) or a learning platform - shared by teachers and pupils and easily reached online from home.

Drawing parents into that network of learning is an obvious further step - and, crucially, says Mr Tester, it is what parents want, at least if the extensive consultation process that took place before Costello's parent portal was opened is any guide.

The consultation showed that all the things the Government assumes to be important - attendance information, for example - do not figure as highly on the parental wish list as a desire for information about timetables, exams, study units and homework schedules.

It does not stop there, either. They want to be able to click through to see the actual assignments and the supporting material that the children are going to be studying.

Parent governor Clare Owen says she can log on to the school's learning platform from anywhere. "I can see their timetable, and what homework has been set," she says. "The background papers are there and the guidance - not the answers, but a working plan."

She is particularly keen on the way the portal presents parents with a record of their child's coursework so that as exams approach they can keep up to date with what has been completed and what is still outstanding.

Children can be infuriatingly vague when parents ask about what remains to be done, and the online record cuts through the argument.

"Just that one feature can boost a student up a grade," Mrs Owen says. "That was certainly the case with my son."

The key is to give information that will unlock a conversation between parent and child. Another striking example is at Twynham School in Christchurch, Dorset, where one feature of its learning gateway is attracting nationwide interest.

The range of choices for GCSE and other exams means that pupils can make wrong decisions and get off to a false start simply because they do not have enough information about what is available.

Twynham's answer is the "options site" on the school's website, which pupils and parents can log on to securely. It is packed with information and videos showing lessons, talks by teachers, and, crucially, pupils discussing the reality of their courses.

It is highly interactive, with the opportunity for parents to send in questions. The number of late requests for course changes has fallen from about 10 per cent of the year group to 1 per cent.

For many - perhaps most - secondary schools, the learning platform is a means of creating a collaborative community that includes parents. That may turn out to be the way forward for primaries, too.

Many primaries are already building on the fact that their communities are relatively close-knit. For Michael Shepherd, headteacher of Hawes Side Primary in Blackpool, the starting point is fairly simple and un-technological.

"For everything we do in school we ask how can we involve parents," he says. "Sometimes it's not very much, sometimes it's a lot, but the point is to start with that question."

That approach continues on the school's website, which includes a series of simple but effective class blogs. There, children and teachers post messages and ideas about their work. Parents can read them and make their own comments and contributions. Rachel Cartmel logs on regularly to her son's class blog.

"It's a great way to see how other children tackle things, and learn from them," she says. "My son sometimes does his spelling tests online, for instance."

Mrs Cartmel also uses the blogs to send messages of support to the school. "They did a play and I went on and said: 'Well done' and thanked the teachers. It's an excellent way to show we appreciate what they are doing," she says.

None of this replaces face-to-face meetings. But when parents cannot attend, online contact is the best alternative. "The next step is for the school to video the sessions that the school holds for parents on areas such as maths teaching and post them on the website for all parents to see," says Mrs Cartmel.

Her son, like other Hawes Side children, uses photography and video extensively in his work, making picture stories of holiday events and for homework. The school has responded to parental requests to run courses to bring them up to speed with their children's expertise in technology. "Having an eight-year-old outdo you completely is grounding," says Mrs Cartmel.

The most striking lesson from Hawes Side is that online engagement is most effective when it supplements and enriches what is already a sound and positive home-school relationship. The school has a continuously developing structure of home-school groups, community programmes and projects that bring parents into school.

"We never stop working with parents," says Mr Shepherd. "We're pleased with what we do, but we know there is more we could do and we're looking forward to a whole range of ways of engaging them more with day-to-day learning in school."

He recommends the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust's EPRA (Engaging Parents in Raising Achievement) toolkit as a source of ideas.

"It really shaped and focused our work - providing a benchmarking tool and an action plan," he adds. In the end, though, he says, it is about parents simply finding a little time to show their belief in the value of learning.

"We say to parents, even if you discuss school with your children for a few minutes each evening, it shows them that learning is important and to be treated with respect."

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